Two years after putting his father into a Cheshire, Conn., nursing home, Gerry O'Donnell had come to accept the hard truth: Jeremiah O'Donnell, a retired aircraft-factory worker, was dying of Alzheimer's. But what Gerry never got used to was visiting the home only to find his father unwashed, un-shaved and on soiled sheets at a facility where the staff didn't seem to care. "It was eating away at my guts," says O'Donnell, 56, who estimates that he complained about his father's care more than 100 times with no lasting results. "Their answer was always, 'Well, we are short of staff,' " he says.
That wasn't good enough for O'Donnell, who took matters into his own hands. For five weeks during the summer of 1999, he openly videotaped conditions in his father's single room at the 120-bed Cheshire Convalescent Center. Next, O'Donnell, a former cop, offered his tapes to the state health department. It was only when he took them to a New Haven TV station that he finally got results. On Oct. 5 state police arrested the home's administrator Dawn Kolenda, 32, and the following day director of nursing Patricia Rzewnicki, 72, both on misdemeanor cruelty charges.
This could be the first time in the country, say legal experts, that a state has brought criminal cruelty charges against administrators in a case involving neglect. "We are putting people on notice that if they abuse the elderly, they will y be arrested," says Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey, 56, who has created a prosecution unit especially for elder abuse. Among other things, the Cheshire Convalescent staffers are accused of allowing Jeremiah O'Donnell to develop a bedsore so serious he required surgery and of depriving him of supplemental oxygen ordered by a doctor.
News of the Connecticut arrests put nursing homes nationwide on alert at a time when many are struggling with severe staffing shortages brought on by the tight job market and a rise in the number of elderly in need of care. Rzewnicki, now retired, insists that arresting staffers like herself will only discourage others from taking on the low-paid, high-stress work. "I worked hard [at Cheshire] for eight years, and I'm proud of the care I gave," says Rzewnicki, who, like Kolenda, pleaded not guilty to the charges (which carry a maximum sentence of one year in prison) on Nov. 29 at Meriden Superior Court.
For Gerry O'Donnell the arrests were a victory of sorts. Though his father's care had improved dramatically after O'Donnell first went public with his allegations in 1999, Jeremiah died on Sept. 25 at 79, seven days before the arrest warrants were issued. "It was a sad funeral because he had to go through all this," says Gerry, who has also brought a civil suit against the home. "But I was holding my dad's hand when he died and it was clean."
Born in Waterbury, Conn., but raised in then-rural Cheshire, O'Donnell says his father never really approved of his decision to work in law enforcement. "He always said I was too smart to be a cop," says Gerry, the second of Jeremiah's three children. Yet O'Donnell persisted, working his way up from patrolman in Cheshire to inspector with the state's attorney office in New Haven investigating homicides.
By 1997, when the family decided that Jeremiah, suffering from dementia, needed full-time care, Gerry was working as a private investigator with Michael, 35, his son from his first marriage. (O'Donnell married his second wife, Kathy, 41, an insurance marketer, in 1986. He has two daughters, Valerie Tagliafari, 36, and Kaitlyn O'Donnell, 12.) His flexible work schedule allowed him to visit his father almost daily, and starting in 1998 he and his mother, Adele, witnessed an abrupt decline in the quality of care. "I couldn't take the dirtiness," says Adele, 77. "Every time I'd go up there I'd feel sick when I got home."
O'Donnell says it was only after the family tried and failed to get Jeremiah into other homes that they resorted to videotaping the conditions that led to the arrests. Now that the ordeal is over, he says, he is looking forward to spending more time on his hobby—his work. "I've always wanted to run a family business, and now I've got one," he says. Not that he won't make time for the people from around the country who have heard about his father's case and call him for advice. "I want to keep pushing," he says. "Somewhere along the line you've got to make somebody accountable."
Patrick Rogers in Cheshire
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